what you get here

This is not a blog which expresses instant opinions on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers as jumping-off points for some reflections about our social endeavours.
So old posts are as good as new! And lots of useful links!

Sunday, January 2, 2011

The balance of power

My blog managers have suddenly added a statistics button which tells me the number of people accessing the site. Quite salutary to learn that the most popular entry was one in which I said absolutely nothing – merely gave a link to the Ideas Festival!! What was that about? And do I have to conclude that “least said best said”? Probably – since I have also noticed that it tends to be the shorter Amazon book reviews which are rated most highly. Talking of which, I am still not able to use my Amazon site – perhaps one of my readers can help me? Amazon certainly can’t – they gave me some obtuse advice about my cookies. I started to look in the oven – but did eventually manage to find a cookie-editing facility on the laptop and adjust it but it made no difference.
During the cold war, the phrase “balance of power” became unfashionable in liberal circles - and remains so. I never succumbed to that liberal fallacy. I had meant to devote my last post of 2010 to the principle of the golden mean – since I’ve been reminded a couple of times recently about the importance of “balance” in development. First was some work I was doing for a project bid. I had to draft something about building up the training system for civil servants and I remembered some consolidated thoughts on this issue I had drafted a couple of years ago – building on what I had learned from three years setting up a training centre for civil servants in Uzbekistan; 2 years’ work with Kyrgyz municipalities; and a year developing training in Bulgaria to help “the implementation of European norms” (to use the dreadful jargon. Most technical assistance works on the supply side – training trainers and helping establish training institutions. However useful this is, the main factor which will ensure training effectiveness is a clear demand from the organisation in which the “trainees’ work. A Polish friend and colleague on the latter project (Jacek) helped me understand the relevance of “learning outcomes” - and another friend and colleague (Daryoush) and I had developed a diagram which showed that effective training required input from 4 different groups – client, training manager, instructor and learner. Very slowly in the west, power has shifted from the suppliers to the consumers – but the best system is one in which there is a balance of power.
Then there was the thought-provoking start to Henry Mintzberg’s 2000 article on the management of government
“It was not capitalism which triumphed when the Berlin wall fell – it was balance.” the article began – going on to set the “strong private sector, strong public sector and strength in the sectors between” against the lack of balance and of “countervailing power” in the so-called communist societies.
A recent paper from the Compass Think-Tank Time for a new socialism made the point that thinking about the best point of balance between the various sectors shifts cyclically.
Historians like Arthur Schlesinger and theorists like Albert Hirschman have recorded that every thirty years or so, society shifts - essentially, from the public to the private and back again. The grass, after a while, always feels greener on the other side. The late 1940s to the late 1970s was a period of the public, the late ‘70s to now, the private. Now the conditions are right for another turn, to a new common life and the security and freedom it affords, but only if we make it happen by tackling a market that is too free and a state that is too remote.

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